Book Review: Information and Emotion
Information and Emotion: The Emergent Affective Paradigm in Information Behavior Research and Theory. Edited by Diane Nahl and Dania Bilal, Information Today, 2007, ISBN 978-1573873109, 359 pages.
Information is often linked to the scientific domain and perceived as a known and measured quantity, a fixed point. Terms such as 'information science', and 'information management' contribute to the view of information as an objective tool. Information behaviour research, though, takes a different view, by exploring the relationship between the emotions and personal experiences of users and the information they find and use.
For any library and information professional, the study of information behaviour offers many valuable insights into the inner workings of that most elusive of subjects, the mind of the user. The idea of exploring the emotional aspects of interacting with information tilts the horizons somewhat, but of course the discovery and use of information is not an objective process. Information and Emotion brings together some very useful case studies and research papers that examine user emotions interacting with information.
In assembling this set of research papers, editors Diane Nahl and Dania Bilal provide us with a view of information from this very different perspective. Here, information is viewed through the perceptions of individual users. The interaction of users with the information they search for, find, and, ultimately, make use of, is shown as being coloured by the users themselves. The research shows how the environment, personal expectations, level of expertise, prejudices and interests of the users create a unique experience between the user and information. Personality is shown as a very important contributing factor in the user experience . It is, though, one that is often not so much ignored as just not even noticed in many standard user surveys, where the focus is on the mechanics of how the user interacts with a system.
The collection presented by Nahl and Bilal acts as an introduction to the work of information behaviour researchers to those unfamiliar with this area of research. It also neatly encapsulates current thinking for practitioners more versed in the subject. Detailed references along with notes on all the contributing authors encourage further exploration of the subject, but equally offer a quick route to keeping up to speed with the leading US thinkers and researchers in this area.
Although interested in the area of emotion and technologies in general, I have not read much in the specific field of information technologies and emotion; so I came to the book as a novice in some respects, and found it a good introduction. This work would still, in my opinion, be suitable for someone just beginning to investigate the subject. None of the authors are too rarefied in their approach to presenting their research or in discussing the implications of their findings, so their methodology and terminology is accessible. That said, the collection is also full of interesting chapters that would inform and inspire anyone already familiar with the subject. I also found the authors' writing to be firmly rooted in the practical application of their research, an essential component of any work I read in a professional capacity.
The book is divided into four sections: "Theoretical Frameworks", "Macro-Emotional Information Environment", "Micro-Emotional Information Environment" and "Special Information Environments". This organisation divides the book in a useful way and works equally well whether one is quickly checking on a particular area or engaged in more detailed, progressive reading through the entire volume.
"Theoretical Frameworks" gives an introduction to the concepts of information behaviour and more general research into emotional behaviour and works well as a guide and a reference point for subsequent sections. I found that I skim-read this section initially, then referred back to it as I read various chapters in the book. I tend to dip in and out of collections of papers/research such as this, where each chapter is a self-contained unit. As some aspects of this subject area were new to me I found it very useful to have this section to refer to as required. Another handy point of reference is the well-designed Subject Index. Using these sections in conjunction, I was able to look up new ideas that interested me and follow them through the book.
Sections two and three - "Macro-Emotional Information Environment" and "Micro-Emotional Information Environment" – offer empirical studies in the different environments. Section four, "Special Information Environments" deals with disruptions in the information environment. The detailed studies in all sections give methodologies used to collect data, lots of examples and an analysis of results that relates the findings to the library and information environment. I found many things in each section that I will use in my own work; but also something in each section that really made me stop and think.
Rich Gazan's chapter on "Understanding the Rogue User" , for example, explored the interesting area of online identities. This chapter shows how these virtual personalities can not only reflect the real-life individuals who create them but also exaggerate some of the personality traits that an individual exhibits in real-life social interaction. In the case of the rogue user, this can result in behaviour that is destructive to other online users. Gazan not only gives insights into this kind of behaviour, but also offers some hope of, 'productive ways to channel the emotional needs behind them, to keep online communities useful and sustainable for all.
This practical application of research back into the library and information environment is much needed as libraries in all sectors provide more and more online services for users. Library and information professionals need to be as aware of and as familiar with the issues around inappropriate or destructive behaviour as they are with similar behaviour in the physical library space. If online initiatives are to grow into communities of users, then anyone who is taking a real-life community into a virtual space, or looking to create and build an online community, needs to be aware of such issues as anti-social behaviour and have some strategies in place.
In addition, the different personae people adopt in a virtual environment are worthy of further consideration. In an environment where, perhaps, identification is not as immediate as in the real world, how might the personality of an individual be affected? And in this new environment how is social interaction defined as appropriate or inappropriate? These questions have been asked before, but putting them in the library and information context is an interesting exercise.
Michelynn McKnight's study, "Affective Dimensions of Critical Care Nurses' Informative Interactions: Gentle Nurse Jekyll and Harried Nurse Hyde"  investigates how nurses in a high-pressure environment swap their behaviour in seconds when dealing with machines/systems and then with people. My initial impression was that the study was rather obvious – taking a nurse in a critical care ward, where her job often is a matter of life and death and contrasting this with her attitude to a computer system for patient records is bound to result in the 'Jekyll and Hyde' character reference of the title.
However, McKnight's chapter puts the frustration of the nurses into a context that is worth considering – that of a professional using technology as a tool, and one on which they cannot afford to lavish time. In one of the examples from the data, the nurse talks calmly to a patient who is frightened and in a critical state, then takes out her frustration at the situation she is dealing with when she is back in the private room with the information system. Another nurse admits, 'One thing about the computer is that I can growl at the computer.' The nurses routinely complain about the system, but it also acts as a safety valve and they are aware of this.
I was led to speculate that a survey of their use of the system may well have uncovered negative feelings about the technologies, perhaps leading to spurious improvements to the system. And further, this would have missed the point. However fast the answer sought comes back, when the user is searching for something to stop a person in serious pain, it will never be quick enough. Indeed, it will never be enough in itself. Moreover the context in which the nurses accessed the system – a private room where patients and families had no access – meant their frustrations and fears were at the forefront in a way that was not possible in front of the patient.
I was left pondering that the nurses were in an extreme situation; but that served to highlight the very complex relationship between users and technologies. User experiences do not occur in a vacuum and research into the emotions the user brings to the information environment is of use in planning and managing systems which people feel happy and confident in using. Many of the chapters made me stop and think, and not just in a 'blue-skies' way. The studies into the different emotions experienced by cross-cultural users, visually-impaired users, children, stay-at-home mothers and critical care nurses, among others, brought a new dimension not only to viewing the user as an individual, but also thinking about support strategies for their emotional needs.
My initial interest in this book was, I thought, quite specialist within the library and information sector. After reading it, I would encourage all information professionals to add it to their essential reading list. It will open up a new way of looking at services and assessing requirements. You may never look at your users in the same way again.
- Gazen, R. "Understanding the Rogue User" , in Nahl, D. and Bilal, D. (Eds) Information and Emotion, ASIST Monograph Series, 2007, Chapter 9.
- McKnight, M. "Affective Dimensions of Critical Care Nurses' Informative Interactions: Gentle Nurse Jekyll and Harried Nurse Hyde", in Nahl, D. and Bilal, D. (Eds), Information and Emotion, ASIST Monograph Series, 2007, Chapter 6.